Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blackman (expected April 2014) Thanks to the publisher for an ARC :)
In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her “uncle” Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf’s, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.
Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler.
And Gretchen follows his every command.
Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can’t stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can’t help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she’s been taught to believe about Jews.
As Gretchen investigates the very people she’s always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?
I went into this book with no illusions. It’s obvious from the blurb where this was going. That said, I wasn’t prepared for how conflicted I would feel about it. Reviews have begun to pop up around the blogosphere and the general interwebs and I was starting to think ‘is it just me?’ because I felt at complete odds to the glowing feedback coming in.
This is an ambitious book. Gretchen is, at least at first, on the surface of things, an anti-Semite. She’s been indoctrinated by a Nazi regime and her dear Uncle Dolf to be the perfect picture of Aryan womanhood.
As a YA book, I’m not sure how I feel about this initial stance. It takes a lot of bravery to attempt to write about something that caused, and still causes, a lot of pain and tragedy for people. Will we ever be far enough away from the even that the horror is dampened? Possible not.
Almost every year at secondary school we studied the Third Reich and the rise and effect of Nazism in the Second World War in some way or form, so I feel that if I was a teen or young adult reading this I would be well prepared. But the curriculum can change, subject to choice, and whereas I have faith that the grand majority of young people would have the sense not to be influenced by a narrative like this, I’m still not comfortable with Gretchen’s initial description and reactions to ‘the Jew’.
I recently wrote a short piece about ‘writing what you know’ and I still firmly believe that as a writer of fiction, the world is literally yours. But when it comes to a younger readership, there needs to be some kind of authorial responsibility. Am I saying that Prisoner of Night and Fog is irresponsible? No. However, research can only take you so far, and some areas of history need to be approached with caution.
Putting some of my moralistic issues aside… *I don’t usually include potential spoilers, but I found it impossible not to while trying to explain myself in the course of this review. You have been warned.*
Some small plot holes? If it was really a big cover up about Gretchen’s death, would the family have been allowed to keep his uniform? Part of me felt like the whole ‘mystery’ about Gretchen’s father’s death was so that she could confront her ‘Unlce Dolf’ about it near the end, and ultimately seal her fate in doing so… But… For me the moment they share, alone, at his offices is much more cause for her concern than this.
And who’s to say that he wasn’t shot in the back- if he had turned around in his ‘heroic’ act, it would have been viable. And near the end, her mother meets Gretchen and Daniel out the back of the grandparents’ house in Dachau. They’ve just hiked across a field so they wouldn’t be caught going in through the obvious road. How would her mother know which way they’d come? If they were coming at all?
Gretchen Muller – I do like her. I’m glad her insecurities and doubts about her ‘teachings’ come through early on. Literally, in the first few pages she struggles to put the strong anti-Jewish ideology into action. But I still couldn’t help but feel she was a bit dense. She’s 17, and has been Hitler’s little golden girl her whole life.. but she hasn’t read Mein Kampf until now?
Daniel Cohen – He was a little bit ridiculous to me at first. Lurking around, passing notes, lurking some more, being cryptic. Why not just wait until you have the ‘proof’ before you try to convince Gretchen you’re not a nutter? But he grew on me, for sure. The male characters appear much stronger on the page for me.
The bad brother – Wow. Now THIS is some seriously good characterisation. It would be wrong to say that I ‘loved’ him, but I admired him from a creative point of view. Such an interesting chap! His whole nature is fascinating really. The bad boys are always more fun to read.
Narrative flat spots – Sometimes, where I really wanted, or expected, some real tension or high octane feels, I was given cold description. There were moments where I was right there, gritting my teeth, tows curling, stressed out because ‘they’re gonna get caught! EEEEKS!’ but then it would switch to some cool, calm descriptions of the people on the streets, the surroundings, and it would kill the emotional response I was seeking/nearly experiencing.
These flat spots appear again, often when explaining something more factual, or reading a journal, or letter.. and I would skip it because it felt less like an imperative plot point and more like a chore.
Dangerous love – I really enjoyed the way the relationship between Gretchen and Daniel grew and explored itself. But (there’s always a ‘but’ with me at the moment) it’s not like other classic YA staples we’re used to where sure, it might be a doomed romance between a girl/boy, vampire/human, angel/demon, whatever. Here though, we know how history went. If they get caught? It’s death. No way around it. And that scared me.
We know where this will end – I think I struggle with the sense of hope and righteousness and gumption that both Gretchen and Daniel show, especially towards the end. This is because we know how this will go; hundreds upon hundreds killed, because of their religion, race, beliefs, actions, reactions… It makes the efforts of two young adults seem completely pointless. A futile effort when in the end, what difference can they make?
‘Uncle Dolf’ – I wasn’t comfortable with his characterisation. This isn’t because of who he is, but more because of all my own studies and research, I can’t imagine him how he is imagined here. He’d either be pathetically human or a ranting and raving beast- he’s almost a caricature of himself, complete with whip and pistol. It’s far too easy to label him as simply ‘psychopath’ and I have no doubt that he had some deep rooted psychological issues, but I don’t necessarily agree with that label.
As I said above, this was a brave book. There are some really great scenes, especially in the second half where the pace really picks up. The first 50% drove me potty with its ‘who dunnit’ preoccupation and fact throwing. I enjoyed the ending pages of this book, and they ultimately made me feel different about how I might rate it.
I just can’t separate my moral, and historical, stance from the narrative. I say ‘historical’ because my own country would go on to pay a high price for the war that is just around the corner from Gretchen and Daniel. And I think on a grander scale, Europe felt the repercussions of the atrocities for years, and still do now.
There are books, probably hundreds, that take on similar narratives, about similar people with similar goals. But I’ve never come across a YA book that does it quite like this, I don’t think. It was a big gamble, but did it really pay off? For me, it was clumsy in its handling of the relationships between the fictional and the real-fictional people; the use of German words and phrases; the balance between showing and telling.
Like I mentioned, the last few chapters and the ending was the high intensity, suspense and shock that I was waiting for. The emotional balance is better handled here, and at the moment where Gretchen is alone with her ‘Uncle Dolf’, and the lights go out… oh my word!
A confusing book for me, really. I will definitely be checking out a sequel, but I’m not sure my brain will ever sort out how it really feels about it. A solid 3 out of 5, because it is written well with great research to back it up and I can see why others may enjoy the heck out if it- but I was left feeling conflicted, and wanting more out of it than I got.